5 Strategies for Leading Sales Teams Through Times of Uncertainty

Since March 2020, the world has been in a state of constant change and uncertainty. We’ve seen the splintering of society with the pandemic, politics, issues of social injustice, the great resignation, and now, inflation and recession.

For salespeople, the pendulum has swung – from pandemic-driven job losses all the way to labor shortages that fueled a candidate-centric recruiting market, back to the current climate of fiscal tightening and unfortunate layoffs. In July 2022, over 30,000 tech workers were let go.

But for a lot of people (both team members and leaders alike), this might be the first economic crisis you’re living through. And in times of crisis, two things can happen:

  1. Fear and distraction give way to diminished revenue production, quota attainment, and rash decisions to leave for greener pastures (which we know don’t often exist).
  2. Leaders can choose to lead with conviction, agility, and empathy to bring their teams through to the other side stronger!

If you’re the type of leader that prefers the second option, it’s critical to shift your attention in times like these, focusing on the emotional needs of your team, not just your profit.

Here are five key strategies to lead your team through times of uncertainty.

1. Assure them, this is normal

According to my good friend (and fellow sales nerd) Todd Caponi, author of The Transparency Sale and The Transparent Sales Leader, economic expansion and contraction is normal.

History tells us massive inflation and uncertainty follows explosive economic growth. It happened in the early 1920s during WWI and the Spanish Flu, just like it’s occurring now, post-pandemic.

These ups and downs are a normal part of business (and the human experience).

Your sales team are on the front line of economic, social, and political change. The disruption will continue, particularly as technology advances and disrupts work as we know it today. To enhance your team’s resiliency in the face of adversity, it’s important to empower them right tools and tactics, to maintain an agile mindset, and remind them that “this too shall pass”.


2. Create certainty where you can

Our brains are prediction machines which is why uncertainty makes them do funny things (for more on the power of certainty. check out my related post on What Having Cancer Taught Me About Sales). As the saying goes, “we suffer more in imagination than in reality”. We ruminate over every possible outcome – trying to think our way to the finish line for every possible scenario. While these scenarios rarely happen, they impact our emotional resilience, productivity, and creativity.

Sales is a competitive, anxiety-riddled, and emotional rollercoaster at the best of times. Throw a recession, pandemic, and mass layoffs into the mix and it’s easy for salespeople to get paralyzed by worst-case scenarios.

With all the noise about cutbacks, hiring freezes, and rising inflation, it’s important to create clarity and certainty in your sales team, in any way possible.

Just as your clients crave certainty, so do your people. Share with them what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing about it as a company. Our brains are hardwired to look for risks and doubt, so providing transparency goes a long way.

A simple way to do this is by creating predictability through regular updates. For example, every week in your team meetings share the latest strategic updates from your senior leadership, let your team air their concerns, and brainstorm ideas to overcome them.

Give your people ownership, a platform to express themselves, and be open, even in the midst of uncertainty. Acknowledge their feelings and validate where their fears are justified and where they might be misplaced in the face of facts.


3. Re-align your sales motion to the market

When facing a recession, we all follow the same behaviors. We cut discretionary spending and focus on extending our runway – whether that’s money, toilet paper, or gas. Individuals, teams, and companies do this.

People buy feelings. The experience is the product. This is why your sales narrative during times of uncertainty is so important. If your messaging or positioning is tone-deaf to the current time or falls into the ‘nice to have’ category, the sale won’t happen.

This climate calls for a value proposition review.

Just like you’re creating certainty in your sales team, the same applies to your clients. Align with their values, emotional needs, and desire for security.

Related video: Your Sales Narrative For Times of Uncertainty?

Related video: What your customers value has changed! Has your pitch?


4. Practice ‘extreme firmographic focus’.

As sales leaders, it’s tempting to cast the net wide and reel in every opportunity. Paradoxically, it’s better to narrow your team’s focus and go forensic, not far and wide. Todd refers to this as, “extreme firmographic focus.” Look at your historical sales data, team performance, and really internalize which types of customers can get the most value from your solution during times like these. Then, double down on them (and yes, to the exclusion of others).

In a recession, not all industries respond equally. Some thrive, some collapse. Which companies and industries that you serve do well in a recession? Who needs what you do, right now? Direct your attention to these deals. With clarity comes confidence, both as a leader, within your team, and ultimately, in your clients.


5. Remember, good (and great) comes from bad.

Tough economic times, when led right, offer an opportunity to improve your sales teams’ grit and your clients’ loyalty. Our brains tend to remember the bad times more than the good. It’s a biochemical response – our brain’s way of ‘recording’ challenging moments, in order to better cope with adversity in the future.

Remind your team of this! After all, when selling environments become tougher, the best leaders dial up their conviction, agility, and empathy to come out stronger. Indeed, some of the world’s best teams and brands were born out of uncertain times.


Bonus Video: Leading Sales Teams During Uncertain Times with Todd Caponi

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